Jell-O looks like what happens to Kool-Aid when it’s retired and lazy. For sure, it is a mysterious food. An epistemically casual consumer may not know that Jell-O’s main ingredient, gelatin, is made from animal bones and ligaments. Since most people have neither made gelatin nor manufactured Jell-O, the epistemic and social dimensions of food are readily seen: how does one know that Jell-O contains animal, and who told them?

If you don’t care about eating animals, you probably don’t care about gelatin. But for the vegan, Jell-O and other foods present meditations on the intersection of knowledge and power. Why do we eat so much meat in the U.S.? Why is it difficult to find food that has no animal? What the hell makes Jell-O so profitable (and jiggly)? Am I obligated to tip my waitress when she is snarky about my anti-lactarian requests? A partial answer to the first three questions is: animal agriculture is encouraged by the government in the form of subsidized corn. The farmers, ranchers and FDA all collude to make cheap corn, which is feed for cheap meat, which provides endless bones for gelatin. This is why you can walk across the street to get a hot dog and a box of repulsive, sweetened bone and ligament powder, but you have to walk a mile and a half to your closest vegan restaurant. The vegan is pitted against The Dark Forces of The Market, and must be epistemically and politically savvy if she is to transcend her default fate of tofuphagy. Consider the following:

– If I tasted chicken stock in my Zucchini Basil Soup only after I read “fresh zucchini, simmered in chicken stock” on the label, how reliable is my judgement? Am I testimonially injusticing the servers who told me the soup was vegan?

– Walking down the street with a fat bag of freshly picked herbs, one gets many strange looks. Sage and Thyme are crucial for my vegan kitchen. I am not carrying weed.

– How much steak grease is on my grilled vegetable sub? Am I allowed to request a clean grill?

– The server at a Mediterranean cafe did not know if tahini had cream in it or not. I repeat: the server at a Mediterranean cafe did not know whether or not tahini had cream in it.

– Eating at My Thai Vegan Cafe, one can sup on “shrimp” and similarly square-quoted duck, chicken, beef and pork. My inability to interpret this experience constitutes a serious hermeneutical lacuna, not to mention instantiates a doxastic profile of Spelmanian richness. If chicken signifies the meat (texture, flavor) more than the animal, aren’t I eating chicken?

– How could I have known that my sweet potato roll would have tempura-ed potato? And why does soba sound like udon tastes? Just how many times will I order the wrong noodle?

– Given that I’ve never eaten Tibetan food before, how much benefit-of-the-doubt should I give my momo dumpling that it is indeed filled with vegetables, and not ground chicken like every part of my mouth is telling me?

– Why is it so damn difficult to interpret the cattle data in the FDA’s 2012 census? Should I believe Food and Water Watch’s summary that most cattle end up in a feed-lot? The vegan is flanked by two regimes of truth, one belonging to Ag companies, the other to cynics and animal groups.

– Am I still vegan if the homeless man I just gave cash buys pepperoni pizza? (How petty is my veganism?)

Intersections of knowledge and power in veganism is a topic ripe for study, a topic to discuss if we want to beat the Jell-O like opacity of vegan eating. (Vegans of the world, Unite!)

Andrew Mohebbi
Monica Poole